Where has Lewis Hamilton gone?

Lewis Hamilton c/o http://www.sutton-images.com

Lewis Hamilton. 2008 Formula 1 World Champion.

Is that how the history books will record the career of one of the greatest enigmas of the modern era of our sport? It is a question being asked for the first time not in hushed tones, but in open conversation in the Formula 1 paddock. Was that one season as good as it is ever going to get for him?

We’re a cynical lot, and we always look for a story. But this isn’t one that brings along any sense of satisfaction. Because the guy looks lost. He looks dejected, desolate… destroyed.

The Japanese Grand Prix was a microcosm of the situation at McLaren. Hamilton pushing above and beyond; Button serene and imperious. How times have changed at the team.

Jenson Button’s move to McLaren in 2010 was considered by most in the F1 paddock to be a brave one. Going one on one with Lewis Hamilton, at a team which had been built around the 2008 world champion, where the youngster had been a part of the furniture since he was a child… that’s no easy task. But it made perfect sense for Jenson. It was his best opportunity to get to a guaranteed top team, and the expectation would be that Hamilton would tear him apart. Anything Button did of worth at the team would look good.

So when it was Button, not Hamilton, who took the first (and second) McLaren victory that year, Jenson didn’t just look good. He looked mega. He’s continued to look just that.

Jenson Button has settled in well at McLaren. c/o http://www.sutton-images.com

Button’s stock has risen and risen. His racing has improved every week, to the extent that in my opinion he is driving better now and is more complete a driver than he was when he won the title in 2009. And McLaren know it. They’ve signed him up on a multi year contract to extend their relationship up to an as yet unspecified date.

Lewis Hamilton meanwhile is out of contract at the end of 2012. This is Lewis Hamilton we’re talking about here. Hamilton IS McLaren. At least, he was. By extending Jenson’s contract, he now has the longer term future at the team. In the war of F1 psychology that is huge. By signing that contract, McLaren has essentially said that Button is their man. And you can bet that hit Hamilton where it hurts.

It’s why I believe Hamilton was so gutted to miss out on pole. Button, with a new contract, had been top of every session in Suzuka. If Hamilton could have taken pole, it would have been more than just P1 on the grid. It was a message of intent. A message that this was still his team. But he choked. He went against the requests of the team not to leave a gap to Button and he missed the cut. Far from showing the team that he was still top dog, he made a basic error while his team-mate was only denied by the slimmest of margins and after a little bit of magic from the world champion.

The race itself saw Button take an emotional victory in a country which has always embraced him. But it saw another Hamilton implosion. Not seeing Massa in his mirrors, running the wheels off his McLaren in that first stint. That wasn’t the Hamilton that blasted onto the scene in 2007 and made such an impression as an aggressive but classy driver. It had all the hallmarks of a drive from a guy with so much to prove that he’s pushing beyond the sweet spot. Hamilton himself described the race as “shocking.” And it was. But not so much for the gap between Button and Hamilton, but for how much Hamilton seemed to have let himself go.

Lewis Hamilton c/o http://www.sutton-images.com

He’s had a rough season, everything considered. He’s had decisions go against him and has felt the weight of expectation more keenly than ever. And all the while he seems to have lacked the guidance to deal with these situations in the correct fashion. His Monaco outburst against his fellow drivers, his ill judged quip over his colour, his post-race moment with Massa in Singapore.

Personally, I though he handled Singapore fabulously. He took himself away to cool off rather than react. Very mature. He’d learned from Monaco. The problem was he never came back. And so all the quotes after the race were from Massa and were negative. Why on earth did nobody from McLaren or from 19 Management tell Lewis to get back outside and talk to the press? To give his side of the story? Why did nobody advise him to take Massa to one side and talk it out as men on Thursday in Suzuka?

All Lewis Hamilton wants to do is concentrate on racing and winning Grands Prix. But the external pressures are a necessary evil of the sport. And those pressures are showing.

It is interesting to read the two McLaren drivers’ twitter feeds. Jenson tweets photos of himself, his mates, his girlfriend Jessica. Always smiling, always laughing, at race weekends. He is so comfortable at McLaren, so comfortable in himself. Lewis meanwhile will make a few post race comments, and little else. Sitting in the McLaren motorhome and people watching has been interesting this season. Lewis is the one who will skulk in, shades on under his cap, barely registering those around him. Jenson is quite the opposite.

Is that focus? Perhaps. But I’m not sure.

The 2011 spec Lewis Hamilton is not the same person I met at the tail end of 2005 on a windy day at Circuit Paul Ricard. He’s a Formula 1 world champion now. But he also strikes me as a troubled soul, and one who is not enjoying his racing as much as his incredible talent should allow him to.

Hamilton appears to be a troubled soul of late. c/o http://www.sutton-images.com

The ultimate question remains, if he cannot pull himself out of this funk, and if his management continue to apparently let him get on with things of his own accord rather than putting their arm around him and giving him the emotional support he so clearly requires, could Lewis Hamilton leave McLaren? His contract is up at the end of next season, and so are many others. If McLaren is now Button’s team, will Hamilton leave the nest of the squad that created him?

I’m sure that 19 Management would love to put Hamilton in a Red Bull, and I’m sure it is something Hamilton would relish, too. Put him into the team alongside Vettel, give him the best car in F1 and allow him the chance to do to the German, what Button did to him. Go into his team, where he’s been since he was a child, and take it away from him.

There’s just one problem. As we understand it, Red Bull doesn’t want him. Neither does Ferrari. Which leaves only one real option… Mercedes. Michael Schumacher’s contract runs out at the same time as Hamilton’s. Might we yet see Hamilton link up with his former karting team-mate and good friend Nico Rosberg? Or might Rosberg jump into Hamilton’s vacant McLaren?

Nico and Lewis at the 2004 Bahrain Superprix. c/o http://www.sutton-images.com

Or, and this is a thought myself and a colleague had over lunch today, might Hamilton just throw his hands up and say, “Sod it. I’m not enjoying this. I’ve had enough.” Could he simply walk away? Would he simply walk away? There seems little doubt that he would be a huge star in the States, whether he was racing in Indycar or, as might be more likely, NASCAR. He could live in LA, hang out with his hip hop mates and spend more time with Nicole. 19 Management would turn him into motorsport’s David Beckham.

I’m sure all of us hope that the final option does not happen. Because there’s got to be more to come, right? That 2008 title… that can’t be it. Can it?

I’ve seen Lewis Hamilton pick himself up after crushing disappointment and put in the performances of his life, time and time again. But over the last two seasons that self-belief, that resilience, just seems to have slipped.

It’s got to the point where I almost want to grab him and slap him and ask where the hell Lewis Hamilton is? Where’s the friendly, open, passionate racer, who used to laugh off adversity and show the kind of racecraft on track that left you with your jaw on the floor? Would he thank me? Probably not. He’d probably slap me back and I’d deserve it. But I just feel for the guy. I want to see him back to his best. We all do.

But right now, he is far away from being at his best. And I worry that Japan could have been a tipping point for him. Drivers like Lewis who are driven by emotion are the kind of drivers who split opinion. But they are the kind of drivers that you want in the sport. History shows us, however, that the passionate ones are often the ones to make rash, hasty decisions.

For his sake, and for ours, I hope he’s getting the right support, and that somebody, somewhere, can be the motivating factor that gets him back to basics and gives him the wake-up call he so clearly requires.

Because if that 2008 title is to be the only one of his F1 career, it’s not just Lewis that’ll be short changed. It’ll be all of us.